Even in an era of digital and social media, the power of The West Australian has only strengthened under the direction of Kerry Stokes.
Who sets the news agenda in Western Australia? The political agenda? The sports agenda? The justice agenda? “You can’t overemphasise the influence of the West,” a former journalist for the The West Australian told INQ. “It drives so much of the agenda, it dominates everything … It’s a different part of the world, and if you’re working there and you’re not a West Australian, you have to learn that West Australians even say things differently.”
And that power, even in an era of digital and social media, has, if anything, strengthened in recent years under the direction of Kerry Stokes.
Three years ago, The West Australian took over its only print competitor, The Sunday Times, previously owned by News Corp. The deal included a copy-sharing deal with News Corp — it now prints news from the Murdoch-owned News network, as well as columnists like Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine. Commentators were concerned at the loss of diversity, but the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) ruled that it was likely the Sunday Times would otherwise have closed.
This year, the West also bought out News Corp’s stake in the Community Newspaper Group, which publishes suburban newspapers in Perth. The takeovers added to Seven West Media’s near-monopoly of the news business in Perth — Seven’s nightly news bulletin is also consistently the highest rated. Seven News and the West also share a single newsroom in Perth.
“Print ownership has almost totally concentrated with Seven West Media,” according to Bret Christian, who edits the independent Post in Perth’s western suburbs. “The only daily paper does have sway, and most politicians still think it’s got more influence than it does, and that perception gives them influence with those politicians.”
The West had always been conservative-leaning — Senator Mathias Cormann and former foreign minister Julie Bishop are referred to as “protected species” around the West, where they seem to get particularly soft treatment. Indeed, editor Anthony De Ceglie’s predecessor Brett McCarthy now works for Cormann. But with the paper’s federal political editor Lanai Scarr — a new hire from News Corp — in the Canberra press gallery, and De Ceglie at the helm, the coverage of federal politics has been more extreme, or just “weirder”, as one former journalist described it.
During the election campaign, the West took the same fiercely pro-Liberal line as the News Corp papers. Reports based on — in one case, fake — Liberal polling and drops from the Liberal Party made up the majority of coverage.
It’s a sharp change from a paper that had prided itself on its strong federal politics coverage. Its Canberra reporter Andrew Probyn, now the ABC’s political editor, broke the 2016 “mediscare” story for the West. As one current reporter lamented to INQ, “Suddenly in Perth, how do we know what’s going on in Canberra?”
More than 30 staff took redundancies in April, including Gary Adshead, one of WA’s best-regarded investigative journalists, who has gone to Perth’s Nine newsroom. He had most recently been state political editor, but he’s best known for his investigations. Earlier this year he voiced a podcast for the West looking at the Claremont serial killer case — a trial about a notorious case from the ‘90s, which the West had built its new paywall strategy around.
“What are people going to pay for if the journalists who are going to provide that differentiation aren’t there?” said a former West journalist. “You can’t put a kid on a 20-year-old story, some of those kids are reporting on a crime that happened before they were born or when they were too young to know about it … You’ve got few people in there who’d have any sense of what it was like.”
The redundancies this year were another attempt to address the dire financial situation for Seven West Media (SWM) and its businesses. The 39 redundancies this year brought the total staff number at The West to about 160 editorial staff, compared to 225 in 2014, according to MEAA figures. Last year there was a redundancy round of 11, and in 2016, 37 jobs were made redundant ahead of The West’s purchase of the Sunday Times.
SWM annual results, released last week, reported a loss of $444 million for the year to June after write-downs, including at The West. The annual report indicated there would be more “efficiencies” this year in its newsroom and print centre to address the “challenging economic conditions” in WA.
Tomorrow: All the news that’s fit to scream